“Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the Scripture is of any private interpretation. For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of men, but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.”
2 Peter 1: 20 – 21
“For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart. Neither is there any creature that is not manifest in His sight: but all things are naked and opened unto the eyes of Him with whom we have to do.”
Hebrews 4:12 – 13
As I was in the process of writing my previous article, “Faith as a Higher Knowing,” I became aware of a deficit in my work. As I considered how faith is born from a confrontation between the Creator and the creature, I became aware that the question of how and where this confrontation took place required an answer. I had been critiquing the seeker for using the yardstick of their own experience, but my account of faith and knowing was susceptible to a similar mysticism which could be untethered from words or criteria. Though faith does not employ the yardstick of experience, this by no means entails that the production of faith and the heart’s rest in God are not objective and open to adjudication concerning their authenticity. In my account though, the experience of God coming to and confronting the creature took on an overly private experience which lacked any focal point beyond the heart’s inner ineffable experience. However, if we seek to guard against the overriding tyranny of the private experience, how does this confrontation between the Creator and creature come about? This confrontation that produces faith is certainly a personal and intimate experience. But is there a catalyst or perhaps a locus where this confrontation takes place?
To briefly remind the reader of the previous article, I argued that the spiritual seeker uses their yardstick of their own experience to judge spiritual experiences, but that faith is a higher knowing which is produced when God comes from above and outside the creature’s experience in order to simultaneously enter into it and radically unsettle it. The creature has, to this point, been attempting to allow its own yardstick of experience reign supreme, but the intrusion of the omnipotent, self-existent origin of Being Himself crushes the creature’s vain posturing under the weight of His eternity. In this moment, the creature is simultaneously confronted with the reality of God’s rule as Creator and the reality of its (the creature’s) rebellion against this God. When the Spirit of God regenerates the creature in this moment, their heart will find peace and will fall deeply in love with their Creator. This heart has been made whole and the creature then begins to have faith. This means they begin to know and love properly again by resting in the Creator whom they were made to be perfectly fulfilled in. But this account still lacks the crucial element of the locus of this confrontation.
The account I intend to set forth is heavily indebted to the work of John Webster, indeed, if you want a fuller and more persuasive treatment of the same topic, I could do no better than to point you to his work Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch. Webster’s work on Holy Scripture inspires because it refuses to be subservient to trendy accounts of communal readings of Scripture or philosophical expositions of hermeneutics. Though enquiry into the reciprocal relationship between the community and text provides valuable insight into how texts constitute communities, communities read texts, and how communal practice constantly lead to re-readings of the text, John Webster persuasively critiques these methods by arguing that they, when applied to Scripture, reduce Scripture to nothing more than a human text. When Scripture is ranked amongst other tradition-constituting texts such as Locke’s Two Treatises on Government or Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, we profess Scripture to simply be another text like all others and therefore must derive its continued relevance and power through the active taking up and living out of the text in the community. This makes Scripture simply another impotent text which requires performance because, due to the author’s absence, the text has no life of its own until the community engages in the practice of reading it (that is, not simply scanning the words but actively interpreting and engaging with it using a hermeneutic born from the community’s life and practice).
Here is where Webster’s critique of the Church’s capitulation to communal readings and my dogmatic account of faith intersect. Instead of denying the human aspect of the text, Webster emphasizes the One who has chosen the text as His locus of activity. So rather than spinning a neat narrative of Scripture descending from heaven, a Websterian dogmatic account emphatically embraces the creaturely reality of the text. The text’s ontology is located in creation and thus the story of its creation and propagation is one that reflects the messiness of human history. However, God’s taking up and sanctifying this creaturely reality provides the crucial move in this dogmatic account. Because God the Creator deigns to use this creaturely reality in His divine economy, the text cannot simply be regarded as a mere text. The text has become not a communally constituted text but the earthen vessel through which God gives His loving presence to creation. God has chosen to use this particular text as the means whereby He will come to and confront His rebellious creation, in order to re-create it and reconcile it to Himself. In short, Scripture occupies an utterly unique genus of text: Word of God.
Notice how St. Peter follows the same logic in his Second Epistle when he addresses the nature of Scripture. First, he begins by saying what Scripture is not. Scripture was not born from private ineffable experiences. The KJV uses “private interpretation,” which evokes for us (though not for them) questions of modern hermeneutical theory. What is an author? How is a text constituted? Here, Peter seems to be saying that the authors of Scripture are not seekers whose texts reflect their own personal struggles and musings after a higher power. Such texts would be nothing more than the shifting sands of human opinion, not a firm rock for God’s people to rely on. These texts must properly be called public because the Spirit that inspired them is a public Spirit who operates in public ways. However, the public nature of the texts does not subjugate them to the performance of the community. It is not up to the community to constitute the text because the text is that which is spoken. In the act of speaking, the speaker intrudes into the reality of the one being spoken too. There is a recalcitrant nature to the utterance because the utterance emerges from another being and penetrates into the experience of the hearer. The hearer may speak another language, but the speaker has still entered into the hearer’s personal drama without their permission. This principle holds doubly so for the utterances of the transcendent God. In this verse, Peter affirms the creatureliness of the text by calling the Scriptures the speaking of men, but he simultaneously locates the prime movement of the text in the action of God Himself. Though it is the human authors who speak (that is, we possess their writings as their own speech to us), the human authors speak as they are led by the Holy Spirit. This crucial nuance manages to capture how the Holy Spirit actively leads and the creaturely reality is gathered up and used in the process of communication. We are left with a text in which the two realities of the human spoken words and the Word of God cannot be extricated from one another. We can’t because we aren’t supposed to. The creaturely words of the authors are guided, sanctified, and breathed forth by the Spirit, thus simultaneously claiming them as His own and also testifying to His eternal ownership of them.
Hebrews 4:12 – 13 bolsters this dogmatic account by using vivid language for God’s active use of His Word. These two verses call Scripture living (what the KJV translates ‘quick’), active, and sharp beyond any two edged sword. Further, this sword does not sit idle while it waits to be used, but the sword itself divides and discerns even to the deepest parts of what we are. The Word does this by virtue of the one wielding it, not because we have granted it permission or engaged it through communal reading. Verse 13 functions as summary of what has just been said; nothing is hidden before God, but all things are laid bare before Him. Crucially, this verse portrays us as the passive agents (the creation or κτίσις) who are laid bare by God’s Word. God is the one who speaks and His Word lays waste, strips away facades, and declares war on His enemies. But the good news is that His Word also speaks freedom to the captive, comfort to the broken, and glory to the humble. What other word or text can be described in this way? Clearly, we have no category for such a species of word. Our words appear weak, transient, and impotent against the backdrop of God’s mighty Words which summon being out of non-existence. How then can we declare the death of this author? How can we call this author absent when His very Spirit cries in our hearts, Abba Father?
Dogmaticians still have much wrestling ahead if they hope to grapple with Derrida on authors and texts, Gadamer on interpretation, and Congar on tradition, to name only a few who I personally grapple with. How do the categories that we bring to the text affect how we understand the text? How does communal practice lead to certain readings of the text? What roles do the author and the reader play? How does tradition shape the reception of a text in a community? Or simply how do the questions we ask of the text lead us to different conclusions? These questions are by no means settled, but I propose this principle as the lodestar of our dogmatic discourse: God’s Word is living and active. It confronts and reconciles, it tears down and re-creates, it makes war and establishes peace. Not because the text is taken up again and again and lived out, but because God actively comes to us in that text and makes us a part of the drama that He is living out.
This utterly unique texts shatters the creature’s sinful charades precisely because the text does not need the creature’s permission to do so. The eternally present Author gives Himself over and over through the reading of His Word. This self-giving in the Word designates the Word then as the location where the creature is confronted by its Creator. This confrontation that produces faith is not to be sought in the smoke-filled halls of a Buddhist monastery, or the crowded streets of New York, or the quiet warmth of one’s bedroom. All are places where God is present, but these are not places with promises attached to them. The dogmatician must be attentive to how Scripture speaks about itself and what language it reserves for itself alone. We will find ourselves in great danger if we attempt to shroud the unique role of Scripture in the haze of private experience. The sinful heart would love nothing more than to flee from the place where its God comes in judgment. It would much rather prefer the comfortable mist of the private experience which cannot be judged, shared, or challenged. The private experience demands nothing of the creature. The Word of God stands against the creature and accuses it. But this accusation is precisely what the creatures needs. For after the accusation, comes the Good News.